Discussing Czech fears and expectations on the eve of the Czech Republic's accession to the European Union - are concerns justified, will expectations be met?

Photo: CTK

In today's special EU edition of Talking Point, we look at how ordinary Czechs view EU membership. With us today are independent commentators Prof. Vladimira Dvorakova from the Prague School of Economics and Dr. Jiri Pehe, Director of the New York University in Prague.

Both of you work with students every day. What are some of the concerns voiced by them regarding EU membership?

VD: "Well I can't say that the students are overly concerned because for the most part they strongly support EU membership and they can see that it will bring them plenty of advantages - the possibility to study abroad, get scholarships abroad, to travel. Students are well prepared for the challenge, many are fluent in foreign languages so they are not afraid and they can see more of the advantages. Another thing altogether is the common citizens. The older generation, with its historical experience, the occupations they survived in the past 60 years -they are afraid of these contacts."

JP: "I can only confirm what Prof. Dvorakova said. I think there is a big generation gap in this country. Older people are sometimes worried, some of them are afraid, they don't know what to expect from the European Union -and then you have young people, educated young people who really see the EU as a great opportunity."

Well, let's hear what some ordinary Czechs told us on the streets of Prague:

Woman: "On the one hand we are happy -because we are students and we want to travel freely, but on the other we don't know how we are going to make ends meet. Prices will rise and our wages are going to stay the same."

Man: "Maybe prices will be a little higher but I don't think it will be so bad. Nobody will die of hunger."

Man: "If everyone around us is in the European Union we should be as well. More foreigners will invest in the Czech Republic."

Woman: "I am looking forward to the open job market."

So what we heard basically coincides with what you said - especially what you said Mrs. Dvorakova about being able to travel freely. But one of the main concerns we heard now was about money. People are worried that prices will grow, salaries will stay the same and that when people do travel to other EU countries they will not be able to afford as much as EU members will be able to afford here in the CR.

VD: "Well to some extent these concerns are justified. On the other hand I think that wages will change. There will be competition so it is impossible for the wages to remain at the same level. But it will be step by step. I think people are mainly afraid because they don't know what to expect. There are a lot of rumours and mainly the older generation - the people who are from lower social groups and for whom every crown is important - they are afraid what will happen, and what will be the impact of accession. It's part of the Czech mentality to be pessimistic - to assume that things will be worse."

JP: "I think that the Czech economy is already a very open economy - it is one of the most open economies in Europe and I don't see where dramatic price increases would come from when we join the EU. It is always a question of supply and demand and if you have an average salary at the level of 17 thousand crowns then obviously shopkeepers and people who sell goods cannot send the price up too dramatically, simply because they would not sell them."

Let's listen to a few more things that people told us.....

Crowds on Prague's Wenceslas Square celebrate EU accession,  photo: CTK
Man: "I don't like the fact that we won't be treated as equal members from the beginning, while this country is offering the status of equality to others."

Woman: "I am afraid that Czech people are not compatible enough with their knowledge, with their education and language skills."

Man: "Czech politics is very ...impolite...if you look at Parliament there are alcoholics and so on -which is incredible to me. I think it can now get better. The European Union will be able to criticize the Czech Republic much more and that's really good."

We've heard quite a few serious opinions here. Could we start with "incompatibility"? One respondent mentioned that.

VD: "I don't think that there are great differences and we have a very skilled labour force. That is important. What is a problem is linguistic compatibility. And that is a problem mainly at basic schools and high schools where the level of education of foreign languages is not what it should be."

JP: "As far as the ability of Czechs to adjust to a new environment is concerned I would argue that Czechs are in a very good position because of our history. Czechs had to operate within larger entities such as the Hapsburg Empire and so on and they were always quite good at adjusting to new conditions. When I lived in the United States I could see that there was no Czech ghetto, that Czechs dispersed in American society and they adjusted very well - and they did very well. So, I think that Czechs are somehow very well equipped to deal with such conditions. So, I don't see a big problem there."

...but what about when people from EU countries come here?

VD: "In our common culture, there are some ways of behaviour that I would say are not compatible. Or example the impoliteness we observe when we watch waitresses, shop assistants and drivers."

JP: "I think that there are again reasons that are also historical. This was a country on the territory of which one hundred years ago you had different ethnic groups - millions of Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, a big Jewish community, and so on. All of these groups gradually disappeared in the twentieth century. When the Czech Republic became independent in 1992, ninety-eight percent of all the people living in this country were ethnic Czechs and there was only a small minority - the Roma minority. I think that we have to learn again how to live with the others who are different. From that point of view, the European Union is a very good thing for the Czech society because this society achieved some of its greatest things when it could confront itself with the others. "

Do you also think that some Czechs are worried about losing their identity if they let too many foreigners in? Czechs gained independence in 1918 and were able to develop their national identity for some twenty years until Nazi Germany came to occupy the country. Then, the Communists took over and for forty years, Czechs had to bow to Soviet Russia. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, they finally gained their freedom and have been able to build their national identity for some fifteen years now. If we add it up, we come to 35 years. Thirty-five years to work on a national identity is not long enough...

VD: "I think it's not a question of these thirty-five years because the Czech identity was present before gaining independence and even during the Communist regime. On the other hand, I think that after 1989 or after 1992, we partly underestimated the education of patriotism. We were very afraid to be nationalist and were very liberal in this sense. But what was underestimated was the need to be proud of being Czech. This is quite important because if a nation feels inferior, it creates space for the growth of nationalism. The nation should say 'okay, we are Czech, not better than the others but also not worse'. If we are in Europe, we have to say 'yes, we are Czechs and we will bring something positive to Europe."

JP: I am not afraid that we will lose the Czech identity. I don't think this is our biggest problem and quite frankly, when some people say that in the European Union we will dissolve like a sugar cube in a cup of coffee, I have to laugh."

What would you say is the main problem?

Photo: CTK
"I think that the main problem for the Czech Republic is whether we will be able to use the membership in the European Union to our advantage or whether we will be just one of the average members benefiting from structural funds and other assistance but basically not using this membership in a positive way. I am afraid that there is a degree of danger. One of the young people who were surveyed said that he was not very happy with the Czech politicians. I too am a bit afraid that we do not have the kind of political elite in this country that will make the best of our membership in the European Union. It is a deeply divided political elite on the issue of European membership. If you look back, you see that only those countries that had some kind of a political consensus on what they wanted to do with their membership in the EU, meaning the strategy they want to use, their vision, then those countries succeeded. Ireland and Finland are two examples of countries where the political elite at some point decided what was to be done and in what to invest, such as high technology, education, etc. Then you have countries such as Greece where they never really agreed even on why they are in the EU. This is a country that goes along but could be outside the EU and do just as well. It has not greatly benefited from EU membership. So, what I am afraid if is that we could be a Greece rather than an Ireland or a Finland."

VD: "I think that the other problem is connected with the state administration. In fact, during the transition process, one of the basic tasks is to build public civil servants who will be very professional and not connected directly with politics. This reform of the civil service sector started here only in the late 1990s and I would say has not been completed until today. So, we have in some sense a lack of professional civil servants who will be able to prepare projects, be active, and serve the public, and this can complicate the situation and we can gain less than we supposed."

Of those concerns that you heard today, which would you say are justified?

JP: "One possible negative development that I can foresee is that there are people in this country, there are companies which are not well prepared for membership and they will not be able to compete either on the individual level or the corporate level. To a large extent, it depends on each individual's attitude. If you are going to accept this as a challenge and as something that can help you, it will probably become a positive thing. If you are going to approach it as something that threatens you and you act in a defensive way, you will probably suffer."